Too Much of Life by Clarice Lispector review – chronicles to treasure

From the age of seven, Clarice Lispector declared in a 1967 column for the newspaper Jornal do Brasil, she knew she was born to write. And write Lispector did. In a life foreshortened by illness – she died at the age of 56 – she wrote with impatient, impassioned energy, winning early fame for her short stories and novels. But it was her chronicles (crônicas) – newspaper columns published between 1967 and her death in 1977 and now translated into English for the first time – that made the Brazilian novelist a household name.

Lispector was a successful journalist, but not a conventional one. Too Much of Life works in almost uninterrupted continuity with the writer’s fiction – stylistically and otherwise. Like her posthumous masterpiece, The Hour of the Star, her columns straddle realism, memoir, philosophy and politics, each dependent upon – and obscuring – the other.

An account of helping an older woman to safety during torrential rain spins from reportage to fantasy. When the grateful traveller calls her an angel, she takes the compliment as fact. Over the course of a taxi ride, relations between the two turn sour and Lispector divests herself of angelic characteristics: “swishing my invisible tail”, she makes her exit, “careful to leave my folded wings behind on the seat”.

Those familiar with her writing will find old obsessions here: tragedy, religion, death, the cunning and cruelty of men and women, the pleasure of living and, after a 1967 fire leaves her scarred for life, the pain of defeat. Too Much of Life reveals Lispector’s continual engagement with politics and literature – reading Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa for the first time in one column, supporting embattled student protesters in the next. She answers her public’s questions, responds to their concerns, appeals for help when their problems outstretch her resources.

For those unfamiliar with her, this book opens a door into her uniquely challenging and rewarding body of work. Stretching over a decade – and across nearly 800 pages – the pieces, some amounting to a few sentences, some many pages long, make up a self-portrait in bits and pieces. The result is, like Lispector herself, witty, mystical, surreal and profound: a treasure to return to again and again.

Too Much of Life: Complete Chronicles by Clarice Lispector (translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson) is published by Penguin Classics (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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